Department

Barely Hanging On

Why Colorado's community ski hills soon may be a thing of the past.

By
December 2009

It's shortly after noon on a midwinter blue-sky day. A fresh coat of snow blankets the high country, and at the edge of the town of Silverton, two snowboarders have a run—and an entire ski area—all to themselves. Welcome to Kendall Mountain, one of Colorado's humblest ski hills.

Kendall, a 46-year-old, 35-acre ski area, rests far outside the Colorado ski resort spotlight and lives modestly in comparison to mega-resorts such as the Aspen quartet or the Vail brands. It might even be an exaggeration to compare Kendall with the relative luxury of mom-and-pop ski areas such as Eldora. Kendall is, however, a prime example of one of the Centennial State's community ski areas—the last remnants of a dying breed of ski hill that offers a skiing experience much as it would have been 75 years ago.

Once common throughout Colorado's Rockies, these smaller slopes have dwindled to fewer than 10 in all. There's Kendall, plus Howelsen Hill Ski Area in Steamboat Springs, Cranor Hill Ski Area in Gunnison, the Lake City Ski Hill in Lake City, Ski Hesperus between Durango and Cortez, Chapman Hill in Durango, and Lee's Ski Hill in Ouray.

These areas generally fit a similar mold: modest vertical topography (a few hundred feet or so), youth- and family-oriented skiing, repurposed equipment like chairlifts from bigger resorts (Kendall's double chair comes from a ski area in Vermont), and inexpensive lift tickets ($6 to $35 for a typical single-day ticket). The other common characteristic is that most of these kid-sister hills have a nearby big brother—Howelsen has Steamboat Ski & Resort, Cranor rides the coattails of Crested Butte Mountain Resort, and Kendall snags curious visitors from Silverton Mountain and Durango Mountain Resort. Most of these intimate operations began as private endeavors, which failed to some degree, and exist today primarily because they were adopted by their respective local governments and greater communities. It's their association with—and dependence on—these municipalities that could either be their saving grace or their ultimate downfall in these dicey economic times.

Kendall Mountain originally opened in 1963 and operated sporadically throughout the 1960s and '70s until closing in 1982. Then, in the 1990s, the town of Silverton resurrected Kendall. The town built a new base lodge in 1999 and installed a double chairlift in 2006. Local resident Bill Alsup grooms the ski area's four runs and 400 feet of vertical topography with his own snowcat under a contract with the town. In the past, every Silverton student received a complimentary season pass as long as he or she maintained good grades; however, recent budget cuts have forced a suspension of this policy for 2009. "The local government views this place as a town park and a community resource," says Kim Buck, who runs the town's combo lift-ticket counter and ski shop. Kendall runs the lifts Friday through Sunday, and the ski area can also be rented on weekdays for private skiing parties, weddings, or corporate meetings for just $500.

The Lake City Ski Hill—once known as Lake City Winter Wonderland—is perhaps an even greater example of the it-takes-a-village ethos of Colorado's community ski hills. Originally opened in 1966 by the local chamber of commerce, the ski hill operated for nearly two decades before a string of bad snow years forced it to shut down. But, in 1989, the Lake City Area Recreation Department revived the hill with the support of local businesses and philanthropic residents. During summers, the Lake City Downtown Improvement and Revitalization Team organizes a youth corps to do routine maintenance on the ski area's five trails. Today, a family of four can ski at Lake City for $34 a day, and thanks to the Lake City Area Recreation Department and Lake City Community School, every child enrolled at the town's main public school receives a season pass.

Of all the community ski areas, Howelsen Hill, with its network of 15 trails, snowmaking capability, and night skiing, is arguably the most successful. As the oldest continuously operating ski area in the state, Howelsen Hill's history dates back nearly a century to the earliest days of skiing in Steamboat Springs, when Norwegian Carl Howelsen came to town. It may have a long history, but Howelsen's business model is still working today: The ski hill sold some 7,200 single-day lift tickets and 1,700 season passes last season, which combined for nearly 15,000 skier days—probably more than all the other small ski areas combined. Not surprisingly, 90 to 95 percent of Howelsen's skiers are locals, including a significant youth contingent and heavy use by families on weekends, says ski supervisor Jeff Nelson.

Of course, not every small ski hill has such a rosy story. Gunnison's Cranor Hill, Ouray's Lee's Ski Hill, and Durango's Ski Hesperus have had their share of challenges over the years, mostly relating to a lack of snow and/or finances. In a good year, Cranor's season may last from just before Christmas through the second week in March, but those snowy years only come around about a quarter of the time. "Our drop-dead date is Martin Luther King weekend," says Dan Ampietro, Gunnison's director of parks and recreation. "If we don't have enough snow by then, it's simply not worth it to open." At Lee's Ski Hill—open only on weekends and after school on weekdays—people (mostly kids) ski for free. But with no revenue coming in from users, it could easily get axed from Ouray's budget if the economy worsens (although the town's mayor insists Ouray would find a way to keep it operating). Things are even worse at Ski Hesperus: As the only privately run hill among the community ski areas, it has no local government to fall back on if it needs to buoy its finances—which means that Ski Hesperus is clinging to the most tenuous existence of the lot. In any given year, Hesperus may or may not open, and, at press time, its Web site was up but its phone line was disconnected.

Not surprisingly, most of the community ski hills, small and smaller, are feeling the effects of the economic downturn. Howelsen will be closed on Mondays throughout the 2009-2010 season. "We're taking a hit just like everybody else," says Nelson, adding that even before the economy went south, areas like Howelsen kept their lift-ticket prices low and local skiers on their slopes by operating in the red. "We operate at a deficit as a resource for the community," says Cranor's Ampietro. "The city council views this as an amenity that we need to keep up, and they're willing to subsidize it." (For the 2008-2009 season, Cranor made $12,000 in lift-ticket sales revenue, but incurred $18,000 in operating expenses.) At Kendall Mountain, the sentiment is much the same. "We never expected to be in the black," says Buck. "We just hope for the ski area to pay for itself as much as possible."

But the sluggish economy could also be an unexpected boon this season for community ski areas. Skiing is an expensive sport, and Coloradans—especially families—are skiing less, and spending less when they do ski. Compared to the sticker-shock lift-ticket prices of the big resorts, the community ski areas may be a financially attractive option. "The whole family can ski at Howelsen and have all the fun they need for what one person will spend to ski at another resort," Nelson says.

Even so, the future of Colorado's community ski areas is not a matter of being able to compete with the big boys. The large-scale resorts and small-scale ski hills are largely complementary, meeting vastly different needs of very different segments of the skiing population. But the question remains: Can these small wonders hang on when cities and towns are tightening their purse strings? "There's no doubt we're losing the battle as far as money," says Howelsen's Nelson. "We're heavily subsidized by tax dollars. However, if you're going to subsidize someone, who better than the youth of your community? It doesn't make sense when trying to balance a checkbook, but these are the tough decisions we make. For the most part, the entire community is completely behind it, and if you don't prioritize your youth, your priorities are screwed up."

Peter Bronski is a Boulder-based freelance writer and the author of Powder Ghost Towns: Epic Backcountry Runs in Colorado's Lost Ski Resorts. E-mail him at [email protected].